For the most part I’ve come to accept my guilty pleasures. I’m only a little bit ashamed that I rock out in the car when “Man, I Feel like a Woman,” is on the radio. I admit that I much prefer the chemical slime that is Nair to the onerous task of shaving. I have been witnessed crying at the end of Bones episodes. I’ll even own up to my celebrity crushes: Bill Nighy, David Tennant and the young David Strathairn, naked as a jaybird in The Return of the Secaucus Seven.
This is why I am so confused at my complicated reaction to the package of American cheese I found in the refrigerator of my new home.
OK, let me start at the beginning. In purchasing the house from people who were making a long-distance move we became the beneficiaries of a range of items—some lovely furniture we bought from them, exquisite Italian linens and rugs they generously left behind, thirsty bath towels that came in handy those first few nights when I couldn’t find where I’d packed my own. We also inherited some leftover foodstuffs: cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar, jars of yeast and capers, fancy coffee beans and rice wine vinegar. And a tempting package of sliced American cheese.
Perhaps it’s the result of living with my vegan daughter, but I’ve become very self-conscious about my not-quite-really-a-vegetarian approach to food. As a result I cook carefully, conscientiously, making sure to cut down on fat, ration the use of eggs, buy organic, local—the whole shtick. So when I go out to a diner and order a tuna melt I always hope the waitress just assumes my cheese choice and doesn’t pose the weighty question “Swiss, cheddar or American?” because I don’t want to have to proffer my low-brow, guilty-pleasure answer.
But now here I was with a whole package in my brand-new refrigerator in my brand-new house. It was a bonus that, like the delicious Italian sheets and pillowcases, I wasn’t expecting. Yet unlike with the linens, I wanted to but couldn’t quite let myself indulge. The cheese just sat there. I peeled off a piece of a slice a few times and nibbled on that. But I was miles away from making a tuna melt.
Instead, I made an exquisite ratatouille. I peeled and sliced the eggplant, salted it and left it to drain. I peeled the tomatoes and sautéed them with onions, garlic, thyme and bay till just slightly thickened. I sautéed peppers, then zucchini, then the eggplant, each in turn, adding them to the tomato sauce, the way you do with a well-made ratatouille. I squeezed lemon juice on the finished dish and covered it with a chiffonade of basil, fresh from our garden. I warmed up some French bread and made a dipping sauce of tarragon-infused olive oil. Then, hoping no one was watching too closely, I peeled off a tempting slice—no, two tempting slices—of American cheese, tore them into bits and watched as they melted, gooey and luscious, into my perfectly-crafted plate of ratatouille. Obviously I didn’t need to add any extra salt.
The next night I vowed to be more abstemious. While my husband was having swordfish, I decided to grill a Vidalia onion and a Portobello mushroom cap, serving them atop a bed of arugula, lightly dressed with some picholine olive oil, a drizzle of violet balsamic vinegar and a palm’s worth of snipped chives. Then, right as we sat down to eat, like a woman in a trance, I headed for the refrigerator, peeled off—that’s right—two slices of American cheese, tore them into bits and watched as they melted, gooey and luscious, into my perfectly grilled mushroom dish.
It was clear to me I had no self-control. My processed, packaged, pre-sliced cheese jones was getting the better of me. Already I was thinking how nice it would be to chop up some bits and toss them with popcorn as a bedtime snack while I watched a couple of episodes of Arrested Development.
What was happening? Where had I misplaced my couth? And what about my blood pressure?
I vowed I could do better. I threw out the cheese. I took a hot soak in my tub and dried off in my thirsty towels before lowering myself into my luscious sheets. I’ll get by, I’m sure.